PCT WA Section J Day 7: Surprise!

Mile 2446.5 to 2453.2 — Today’s miles: 6.7

In the morning I can still hear fish jumping in the lake below, which is a very pleasant sound to wake to. The mosquitos are at the gates again. I suit up in my windpants and headnet to eat breakfast and pack everything up, stowing these protective articles only at the last moment and then rushing down from my campsite past the tweens and their guides, away from the water and back to the trail. But it’s worse here in the forest. Some of the thickest mosquitos I’ve ever hiked through. I practically sprint up the trail, trying and failing to outpace them.

At an unsigned junction, I do a quick map check, and the second I stop moving the mosquitos are all over me, feasting. I throw my pack down, zip on my pant legs, toss on my headnet, and run. The mosquitos are swarming, whining in my ears, and I keep hiking at a feverish pace. It’s straight up, so I’m really working for it, but stopping is not an option.

Soon I can see Piper Pass above me. I hope there will be breeze up there, to relieve some of the bug pressure. There’s not, but on the north side it’s all open boulder fields, and being out of the trees at last should improve things. So I don’t waste time at the top, just start my downhill. It is a doozy of a downhill. Steep as anything, with tons of loose scree (my foot slides out more than once, but I never fall down) and giant steps down on the rocks. It takes forever, but there are lots of cairns to follow. Another hiker passes me halfway down, going at a freakishly fast pace, just scree-sliding and half-running as if he does this every day. (He is also wearing the same gaiters I am, which I dorkily point out to him. But really, in four years I have never seen anyone else with my “what does the fox say?” gaiters!)

At the bottom, I’m breathing almost as hard as I was at the top, just from the sustained concentration and muscle control needed to come down that steep scramble. I walk along relatively flat trail for a few minutes and cross paths with a southbounder. Here there are many good sitting rocks, so I take the opportunity to eat second breakfast and let my sweat-drenched shirt dry out. I look up at the mountain in front of me and see…that southbounder climbing switchbacks? But…that’s not where I just was. I watch him for a while, perplexed. Now two northbounders are coming down the switchbacks! What! Then what the hell mountain was I just coming down?!

I consult my various maps and my trail notes. It seems there is an alternate in this section that goes over Surprise Gap instead of Piper Pass on the way to/from Deception Lakes. As I read about the alternate, I can only conclude that I unwittingly took it. One comment in the notes says something about how many cairns there are to follow even though it’s not a maintained trail, and another says “wouldn’t want to do this northbound — I prefer to scramble going up, not coming down.” Aha. Well then. I watch the hikers above me and observe that they are traveling on what look to be very reasonably graded switchbacks. Ooof. Surprise, I guess.

I hike on, back into the trees, crossing some streams and then happening upon three older (than me) fellows staying at Surprise Lake and out for a dayhike. They seem delighted to hear about my morning surprise, reassure me that I’m on the PCT again (I knew already), and pepper me with questions about where I live (they’ve heard of it!), where I’ve hiked, etc. They are very friendly and our chat puts me in a good mood.

At the last water source for a little while, I talk with a pair of southbounders out for their first section hike. I coo over their cute dog, so they are inclined to like me, I think. We trade info about campsites and then I begin my second uphill of the day, up to Trap Pass. For a while it’s pretty gentle, across some talus with great views of Glacier Lake below, but then after a trail junction, it abruptly becomes a calf-burner of the highest quality. Steep switchbacks that go on and on, up and up. My shirt is soaked through again, but the mosquitos are few, and I finish the whole thing without stopping (though I’m moving awfully slowly near the end). There is a part of me that sincerely loves these long steep climbs, that loves the challenge, that feels satisfied by them — not just at the top, but during the work as well.

Up top there’s a nice breeze and a nicer view. I find that I have spotty cell service up here, if I stand on a particular rock and hold my phone up in the air a bit, and I text with Cyn for a few minutes. A small scouting group arrives and we all eat snacks before going our separate ways. I begin the downhill and around the first turn am gobsmacked by the view of Trap Lake below. It is incredible. I can see little trails and even some likely campsites down there, but I don’t know how to reach them, and my maps aren’t detailed enough to help me. So I just take in the sights and continue on the PCT until I arrive at a quiet little brook with a nice spot for my tent tucked away behind it. There’s a good breeze here keeping the bugs away from me.

It’s early, so I take a nap on my Tyvek, eat, wash my filthy hiking shirt, and read. (I finished The Line Becomes a River yesterday, and have moved on to Roxane Gay’s novel, An Untamed State — I am not sure why I chose two such intense and emotionally agonizing books to read on this trip.) Finally I pitch the tent in increasingly strong wind, wondering if this will turn out to be like those many nights in the desert, when I listened to the ferocious Santa Ana winds blow through my tent until the wee hours. Between the gusts I can hear two pikas eeeping back and forth, a little conversation. As the sun finally dips below the treetops, I eat a snack and brush my teeth, sustaining a massive mosquito bite on my ankle. When I inspect it in the tent, the welt is nearly two inches long. The wind is strong but intermittent. Not as all-consuming as the desert winds, but unfortunately occasionally blowing fine sand up under my tent’s storm doors and through the mesh. Everything inside, including me, is soon covered in dust and grit. But this only elicits nostalgia for the desert, and thus a strange sort of calm. Everything can be washed. The wind will die down. And tomorrow I will embark on my last full day of this beautiful, restorative hike.

View from what I thought was Piper Pass, but is almost certainly Surprise Gap.
The switchbacks up to Piper Pass are camouflaged in this mountainside. This is the view that was in front of me as I ate second breakfast and watched other hikers with bewilderment.
The view to my left from second breakfast. I came over that notch way up there, and then straight down the steep screefield that’s in shadow. Surprise!
Views on the gentle part of the climb to Trap Pass.
Glacier Lake below.
Orange butterflies landed on me and on my gear almost every day. This is on Trap Pass as I ate snacks. Also, these shoes were bright blue two weeks ago.
Trap Lake, heart-stoppingly beautiful. Next time I’m gonna find the side trail that takes me down there to camp.
Feet propped on my pack, tent as a pillow, ready to nap.
In this brook near my campsite, many frogs and tadpoles were living the good life.
Home for the night.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s